Senator Mark Kelly's Daughter Held a Family-Filled Wedding in the Arizona Desert

The guest list included the bride's stepmother Gabby Giffords and the couple's 9-month-old daughter.

Claudia Kelly, Mark Sundman with daughter Sage Sundman at their Arizona wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Shortly after moving to Tucson, Claudia Kelly decided to try dating on an app for the first time. On her first-ever Bumble date in December 2016, she met Mark Sundman, another recent transplant. "Our love story was off to the races as we explored our new home state together," Claudia and Mark share with Brides.

After falling in love with each other and their new locale, the couple decided it was time to take the next step in their relationship. In March 2020, Mark planned a surprise proposal. "We had fostered a morning routine that started each day with a hike in Starr Pass on the Hidden Canyon Trail," shares the couple. "On the special day, Mark enlisted two special confidants to hike up before us to leave a sign at the top of the trail asking Claudia to marry him. Our friends, who happen to be active duty members of the Air Force, took the assignment seriously as they disguised themselves in full camouflage to hide and document the moment for us." Claudia, of course, said yes.

The pair held a shared vision for their wedding day. "We knew we wanted to avoid a ‘stuffy ballroom’ vibe," they say. "Ultimately, our vision for the event became centered around three qualities: we wanted to be immersed in nature, make the event feel intimate, and highlight and celebrate our favorite parts of Tucson." However, finding a location to say "I do" proved to be one of the most challenging parts of wedding planning for the couple. "When touring locations in Tucson’s surrounding area, we felt like the venue infrastructure detracted from the desertscape that we were trying to accentuate. At one point, Claudia flippantly quipped ‘Why don’t we just find an empty patch of desert?’ We never thought that that is where we would end up, but we couldn’t be happier with that eventual outcome."

Claudia and Mark decided to exchange vows at Gates Pass in Tucson Mountain State Park. "According to park rangers, we were the first wedding to seek permitting for an event at the park," they share. "We could think of no greater place than the site of our first date six years prior. The scenery is stunning, and it accentuates the favorite parts of the Sonoran Desert that we now call home."

Claudia and Mark welcomed their daughter Sage during the planning process, so they relied on their planner Colleen LaFleur and a group of vendors close to the pair to craft the day. "Nearly without exception, our vendors were individuals that both of us had existing relationships with—many of whom we’re fortunate to call friends," they explain. "We wanted to highlight aspects of the thriving local community that help make Tucson feel like home to us, and share them with our loved ones who traveled in for the festivities."

On March 4, 2022, Claudia and Mark tied the knot in front of 46 friends and family members, including their daughter, Claudia's father Senator Mark Kelly, her stepmother Gabby Giffords, and their dog Shiner. See all the details ahead, planned by Colleen LaFleur and photographed by
Carl S. Miller.

Senator Mark Kelly puts necklace on daughter Claudia Kelly's neck

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Emerald is our daughter Sage’s birthstone, which made it even more special.

Gabby Giffords, Claudia Kelly, and Senator Mark Kelly at wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia began her morning getting ready with her friends and close family members. Her dad Senator Mark Kelly was on hand to help the bride put on her "something borrowed"—jewelry from her stepmother Gabby Giffords' family collection. "The emerald necklace and matching earrings were an anniversary gift from Gabby's father Spencer to her mother Gloria," shares the couple. "Emerald is our daughter Sage’s birthstone, which made it even more special."

Claudia Kelly in updo with emerald necklace and earrings

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia wanted her wedding day beautiful to feel natural. "I didn't want to look too done up. It didn't fit the vision for the venue or day," she says. "Mark also much prefers the way I look without makeup on, so I wanted just enough to make me feel special and beautiful on our big day but not look like I tried too hard." She had her stylist finish the look off with an updo to show off the neckline of her dress and also keep things in place with the 29mph winds in the desert that day.

Claudia Kelly in off-the-shoulder long sleeve wedding dress

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia originally intended to have a custom dress made for her wedding. But, since she was pregnant with Sage during much of planning, she delayed starting up on the design. "When it became time to start putting the dress together, I was having difficulties with the seamstress and began doubting the process," she says.

Just 10 weeks before the wedding, Claudia decided she just wanted to purchase a simple dress. She found one on sale she loved at David's Bridal for only $200. "She called the retailer and learned that there were only four of the dresses left nationwide—one of which was at their Manhattan location," the couple recalls. "Claudia’s sister, who lives in NYC, went that same day, and tried on the dress while FaceTiming Claudia. Claudia said 'yes to the dress' from afar, and her sister purchased and shipped the dress to Tucson." With some sewing help from Rina’s Alterations, the dress was perfectly tailored to the bride.

Claudia Kelly with her bridal party and mother

Photo by Carl S. Miller

While the couple didn't have wedding parties, they asked their guests to follow an "organic desert formal" dress code to coordinate their tones with the natural landscape. Claudia also held a special get together for the ladies in her life ahead of the ceremony. "The day before the wedding, all of the women were invited to join me at the Miraval Spa and Resort for a relaxing and thoughtful day," she shares. "This was not only a place I wanted to share with them, but also forced me to unplug from my rigorous academic workload to shift my headspace into the wedding weekend festivities."

Mark Sundman with his dog before wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Mark Sundman in suit with floral tie

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Mark spent the morning with his close circle, along with the couple's dog Shiner. He suited up in a chic dark green suit from Indochino with a floral tie.

Wedding guests at Tucson Mountain Park

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman first look in desert

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Our guiding question was what is important to us.

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman wedding ceremony processional

Photo by Carl S. Miller

The couple did a first look, then made their way together hand-in-hand to the ceremony site. "This was an unconventional and unique event that perfectly conveyed the yin and yang of our relationship," explain Claudia and Mark. "Our guiding question was what is important to us—we found that it is remarkably easy to lose sight of that very simple question when planning a wedding. We stripped away many other typical wedding traditions by choosing to walk down the aisle together."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman give wedding vows

Photo by Carl S. Miller

dog at wedding ceremony

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman kiss at wedding ceremony

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Arizona landscape and their loved ones, Claudia and Mark exchanged original vows and said "I do."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman with dog after wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman in Gabby Gifford's car

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman in getaway car

Photo by Carl S. Miller

After the ceremony, Claudia and Mark sped off in a getaway car—Gabby Giffords' very own Chevy Corvair—to celebrate those first few moments as husband and wife.

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding reception setup with long dining table

Photo by Carl S. Miller

One particularly impressive DIY for the wedding reception in the desert? "Claudia designed and built custom dining tables out of baltic birch," recounts the couple. "She specifically designed them to enable quick assembly and disassembly so they could be easily broken down and transported to the remote wedding site. Remarkably, she was working on completing all the tables up until the week prior to the big day!"

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding reception tablescape

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Ceramics on tablescape with greenery and pampas grass

Photo by Carl S. Miller

The tablescapes were adorned with light ceramics, taper candles, and neutral florals for a natural and elegant feel. "Claudia gravitated towards earth tones and colors you would find in the desert just as the sun started to set," they share. "We used preserved copper beech, preserved grasses and ferns, along with fresh ranunculus, quicksand and toffee roses, mink proteas, and anthuriums."

Gabby Giffords' wedding place card

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Atop each guest's plate was a natural stone from the region. "Claudia went to the gem show to find and purchase raw materials that could be incorporated as decor for our wedding day," the couple describe. "Tucson annually holds the largest gem show in the world, and it felt fitting to incorporate some of nature’s gems into one-of-a-kind pieces to accentuate our organic desert formal theme."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's Airstream bar at wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

The sun began to set upon the desert as guests enjoyed cocktail hour. The couple shares working with their caterers was one of the best parts of the planning experience. "Nate and his team at Flora’s were a true delight to work with from start to finish," say Claudia and Mark. "Since living in Tucson and beginning our relationship here, Nate and his team have become friends. We were so excited to explore menu ideas and play with signature cocktails." Their specialty drinks—served out of an Airstream bar—included a Super Bloom Mocktail, a Sage Pineapple Margarita, and a Hibiscus Sour.

Western décor at wedding reception

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Moccasin favors at wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Guests could find their seating arrangements and favors, like gemstones and cozy moccasins, near a Western-inspired arrangement.

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman walk in desert after wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman with their daughter Sage and dog

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Once the newlyweds arrived at their reception site, so did their daughter. "Sage was just 9 months old at the time of our event," they share. "As our first child, we were unsure how much we would be able to include Sage as we were planning for the event’s timeline (i.e., how long will her wake window be and when). We could not have planned the night better as Sage was present for the cocktail hour and through photos at sunset."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's first dance at wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's first dance with daughter Sage

Photo by Carl S. Miller

As Claudia and Mark took to the dance floor for their first turn as husband and wife, their daughter Sage joined in. "Her night culminated with our first dance—a memory we will cherish! Mark downloaded a DJ app on his iPad to have Bill Withers’ 'Just the Two of us' transition into Jackson 5’s 'ABC' as Sage made a surprise appearance."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding reception dinner

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Rather than offering a choice of salmon, chicken, beef, or tofu, each guest could try all four. "We wanted the plates to be small individual servings that allowed people to taste each plate and still have room to select a favorite to eat again. There were people from the food team that would walk around with fresh hot plates and offer it to the table until everyone was full," says Claudia. "I am someone who always wants to try multiple plates on a menu and will strategize with Mark our order strategy to maximize the items we can try. This was the root of this food strategy."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding reception dinner under lanterns

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Another highlight of the wedding's design was the glow that surrounded the celebration. "Our lighting vendor brought the desert to life at night. His creative work to keep our party going after the sunset really elevated the experience for ourselves and our guests," shares the couple. "Our favorite element was the up-lit saguaros (12 of them!) in the distance."

Senator Mark Kelly gives speech for daughter Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

While the father of the bride Mark Kelly gave a hilarious toast, nine other guests also took the mic throughout the evening. "We invited all guests with the opportunity to give a speech during our wedding reception. We did not want typical conventions to restrict who could and could not share words of love and fun stories on our wedding day," they explain. The couple asked guests to indicate on their invitation whether they would like to give a speech on the wedding day. "They flew by and were a true highlight of our event," remembers the newlyweds. "We were happy to hear that our guests enjoyed this non-traditional format as much as we did."

Desserts at Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman's wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Claudia and Mark decided against a traditional wedding cake. "We aren't the biggest cake fans and I find that most end up compromising on taste to meet the design or size requirements," they share. "We instead decided to have two desserts on small plates. One was a spicy peanut butter caramel dessert that was inspired by one of our favorite ice cream flavors. The other was an orange olive oil cake that Floras Market Run makes and we fell in love with."

Claudia Kelly and Mark Sundman under blankets at wedding

Photo by Carl S. Miller

Reflecting on their big day, Claudia and Mark have learned some important planning wisdom to share with other couples about to tie the knot. "Don’t get lost in the process," they recommend. "It is easier said than done, but try to center each decision around the simple question: 'Is this what we really want?' The answer doesn’t always need to be a ‘yes' and that can be okay. However, it is helpful to maintain a conscious awareness of the deviations and approach them with love and gratitude."

Wedding Team

Venue Tucson Mountain Park

Planner Atelier de La Fleur

Hair and Makeup I Do Hair & Makeup Artistry

Wedding Bands S Silverberg and Sons

Floral Design Atelier de La Fleur

Pianist Brad Holland

Catering Ares Collective

Cake Floras Market Run

Airstream Bar A Social & Co.

Transportation Adobe Transportation

Lighting Total Lighting

Videography Omega Wedding Films

Photography Carl S. Miller

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